The first visible fruits of a multi-million euro restoration of the former Victoria Hotel are now on show to passers-by on St Patrick’s Street, as the original Cork limestone facade dating back to 1810 has been discovered and restored to its former glory.
Hidden under layers of waterproof paint, conservation engineer for the project Chris Southgate said that uncovering the limestone was “very exciting”. The rare Cork limestone was likely sourced from one of the since-closed quarries in Beaumont and Little Island, with light texture and white striations or lines running through the stone.
“At the planning stage everyone assumed it was plastered. Nobody realised what a gem was underlying the surface.
"It’s one of my biggest sadnesses that beautiful stone is no longer easily available for modern buildings, it’s a symbol of Cork,” said Mr Southgate. “As soon as we could get up onto the scaffolding with paint scrapers, and find that it was waterproof paint and not a plaster on the facade, it begged the question as to why on Earth would you paint over beautiful Cork limestone.”
He said he suspected the waterproof paint was used to cover up the stonework which probably “leaked like a sieve”.
The limestone blocks were laid using an “ashlar” stonework technique, which leaves very thin joints between blocks, to have as much stone visible as possible on the facade.
The facade has now been restored, with a grout backing meticulously syringed into the joints, and topped with fresh mortar. High-tech but gentle micro-blasting cleaners were used to remove the layers of paint hiding the hotel front, and any defects in the limestone were repaired and colour matched with the same delicacy as restoring an antique oil painting.
Mr Southgate said that the central philosophy of Southgate Associates, the heritage consultants for the project, is to have a “dynamic and creative approach” to conservation, rather than just preserving a “fossilised and dead history for the sake of it”.
With a now-lovingly restored historic facade, and a more modern ground-floor commercial space, the design incorporates both the old and the new. James Duggan of ARUP, project managers and engineers on the project, said it was the co-operation and skill of every party involved that has made it happen.
As well as ARUP and Southgate Associates, the careful restoration is also down to the work of Grafton Architects, Summerhill Construction Co, masonry from the Ahern Brothers, facade cleaning by Gebel and Helling Conservation Ltd, lead work by Thomas Parsons, and windows and joining work by CozyGlaze.
“The landlords saw that there was an opportunity here to bring the building back to past glory, and they were willing to back it,” Mr Duggan said.
"It’s been a difficult project, it’s an old building that needed a lot of care and a lot of work, but the end product will be something special, and it’s giving a bit back to Cork."
The restoration project, which includes not only the facade but structural repairs to the inside and roof of the former Victoria Hotel, has run into the millions.
It is expected that the project will be completed this coming July, with bookstore Eason secured as tenants for the revamped ground-floor commercial space.
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